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The enemy of my enemy is my friend

July 31, 2010

201008010907.jpg It’s being interesting over the last couple of weeks to come across several examples of people defining their position either by being against something, or by extension being for the thing which is against what they are against. Sorry that lacks elegance but you know what I mean. It’s a variation on the old proverb which forms the title of this post; one of the most famous exemplar statements is that of Churchill during WWII: If Hitler invaded Hell, I would make at least a favourable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons.

Three specific events all with the same political origin triggered by thoughts on this:

  • A tweet exchange which resulted in an interesting and as yet to conclude email conversation with someone over individualism v communitarianism. As it pans out the individual concerned grew up in Eastern Europe and for him communitarianism is communism.
  • A wikipedia debate on sins of omission and commission on which I posted earlier this month. The basic subject is if the deliberate and purposeful mass killings that took place under various communist regimes are any different from the mass deaths which have occurred as a result of the indifference of capitalism.
  • A memory of the suppression of Liberation Theology (inspired by the Medellin Conference & Gutierreaz) in 1984/86. Well they called it an admonishment but we all knew the candles were going to be stuffed out if we didn’t stop. The guy responsible for the admonishment by the way was the current Pope in a former capacity.

Now the Liberation Theology example for me summarises the issues well. The Medellin Conference of the Latin American Bishops were seeking to find ways to make Vatican II relevant to a Latin American context. There the gross injustices were (and in some cases still are) similar to the massive inequalities in the old Imperial Russia (both urban and rural) which created the conditions for revolution in the first place. Of course scholars will remember that Marx thought that revolution could only validly arise from an industrial not a peasant society but simple fact and the reasoning behind it is too often neglected.

Given those circumstances it is not surprising that a modified form of Marxism was incorporated by a range of theorists. Also the priests in the communities who saw the day to day suffering of their people had much in common with political movements in those same communities and used much of the same language; they knew what they were against afterall. Their whole experience saw the ideas of the New Testament, the liberating influence of Vatican II and the tacit support of John XXIII as presenting an opportunity for major and positive change.

Of course they knew little of nothing of the Gulags. The year of the three Popes (I still remember being woken up in Geneva to be told of the death of the second) ended with a Polish incumbent whose entire experience of the language of marxism and liberation theology was the rhetoric of a Soviet education system. The reaction that happened was regrettable but predictable. Much that was valuable was lost of destroyed and the Church supported some very reactionary and pretty nasty dictators in Latin American not for what they were, but for what they were against.

Now I frequently rail against people who ignore theory and also against dichotomous thinking. Well this is one of the reasons why. If you first of all divide the world into good and evil on the basis of who is for or against something we dislike (and the dislike is mostly for good reason) then this sort of thinking is inevitable. The world (to reference the illustration) is Gotham City and there is no doubt about who we should be against; one terrible consequence is that we ignore the barbarity of our own heros.

It’s also an imperial tendency. Look at the US support of the Afghanistan Rebels against the Russians or their support of Sadam against Iran. Oh and its not the fault of the US by the way, its a characteristic of all empires, the British and the Romans took exactly the same approach. Dichotomous thinking is lazy thinking, but its popular and simple so people go for it. The trouble is that as each side demonizes each other they are driven further and further into opposition with little chance of understanding or reconciliation.

Every conflict that has ended other than in a repeat of that conflict, has started off with people who have been at war (and I include terrorism here) being prepared to think differently about each other, to reexamine motivations and above all to behave differently. This of the way that the post WWI impositions on Germany created the conditions for the rise of Hitler, and compare that with the Marshall Plan at the end of WWII. Think of the Good Friday Agreement, or the conversations between Mandella and de Kierk. The secret is always to move from dichotomy to dialectic, to an evolution of the future which acknowledges the presence of the past but is not bound by it.

And of course, the single most difficult lesson of the Bible is is contained in Matthew 5:44 namely But I say to you, Love your enemies, bless then that curse you, do food to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you. Any biblical scholar will point you to the contrast with Leviticus 19:19 You shall not take vengence of bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neigbour as yourself.

Now readings of Leviticus have done more social harm than any other book in the Bible and it is no different here. Polarisation or emphasis on just “our own people” inevitably leads to conflict. If we can’t see beneath the surface of practice then we will never make progress.

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